By A.N. Hernández
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
WASHINGTON Kahlo Benavidez, 20, refuses to regret his past. Some would say that’s a tough stand to take when choices left him HIV positive.
Rather than wallowing in regret, he is using his life to inspire healthy living in his peers. He was the first speaker chosen to participate in a nationwide tour called Operation: Get Tested, which is aimed at reducing HIV transmission in young Americans.
“I think this tour will make young people realize HIV is still very real,” Benavidez said. “It’s not something remote and removed from them.”
A sophomore at New Mexico State University, Benavidez is in summer school so he will not fall behind while on the 48-day tour. The tour will take six young HIV-positive Americans cross-country, making 35 stops at universities and high schools.
A Pennsylvania-based organization, Who’s Positive, tailored the tour to appeal to young people, with the hopes of preventing or reducing HIV transmission, while empowering and providing the opportunity for HIV testing.
“I think by humanizing HIV and putting a face to the story of HIV, we provide an opportunity for our peers. It’s not just statistics about HIV. It’s, ‘This is what I have gone through,’” said Tom Donohue, 27, of State College, Pa., Who’s Positive’s founder and executive director.
Half of all new HIV infections are believed to occur in people under the age of 25, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moreover, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2004 Survey of Americans on HIV/AIDS, found that 42 percent of people ages 18 to 29 have never been tested.
Operation: Get Tested hopes to change that.
“I think there’s stigma associated with HIV and with getting tested. And if people can see college-aged kids on tour, maybe it will normalize HIV testing in that age group,” said Wesley Tahsir-Rodriguez, director of health policy at the Latino Commission on AIDS in New York.
Tahsir-Rodriguez is also the national director for Annual National Latino AIDS Awareness Day, Oct. 15, the first day of the tour.
He said the peer-teaching approach will show that HIV is not a death sentence for those who have it, but that more and more young HIV-positive adults can live long, full lives if they get proper medication. He said the tour will make a “safe space where conversation can happen.”
“I don’t know of another tour made specifically of college-aged people who are HIV positive for other people their age. A lot of times people in this age group are the hardest people to reach,” Tahsir-Rodriguez said.
Donohue said the process for selecting tour speakers began with each applicant submitting a one-page biography and a picture. Each applicant had to complete a questionnaire that asked personal questions about mentors, diagnosis, treatment, dating and why he or she wanted to join the tour.
Donohue said he and his staff have interviewed prospective speakers, and despite being willing to discuss their experiences, not all of them made the cut.
“Remember, this tour is about humanizing HIV, being able to share feelings and emotions about their story. Some we have interviewed were unable to express themselves in the way we had hoped,” Donohue said.
The tour will begin in New York and weave through Virginia, Georgia, Florida and other states, ending in Los Angeles on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day. Donohue said HIV testing will be available at each location, as well as on-site counseling should a test return positive.
“From being HIV positive myself, I reflect back three years ago when I found out I was positive, and I understand that for the last three years I could have potentially been putting people at risk if I wasn’t tested,” Donohue said.
Not all tour stops are firm yet, but they will be posted, along with other information available now, at http://www.whospositive.org